Meals on wheels are popular but may not necessarily be sustainable
16th May 2011 · 1 Comment
By Travis Andrews
A growing trend in New Orleans is giving new meaning to the phrase “meals on wheels.”
Food trucks, or mobile food of any sort, has taken to the New Orleans city streets in the past couple of years. The trend can be seen through various restaurants, such as Taceaux Loceaux, a taco truck that uses Twitter to announce its changing location, Pizza Delicious, an “underground” pizza shop that is open one day a week and requires a phone call and a pickup in an ally and Holly’s Tamales, a tamale salesman who uses a bicycle-cart to bring her fare to local bars around the Marigny and the Bywater.
In fact, local columnist Todd Price wrote, “At the rate these trucks are multiplying, finding a meal on the streets soon won’t require any special skills. You’ll be able to just sniff the air and follow the good smells”
But the food truck industry is a difficult one to survive in, especially in New Orleans, and many wonder if it’s a viable way to keep a business running. Take Lee and Niki Mouton, the owners of Boo Koo BBQ, a brick and mortar stand outside Mid-city’s neighborhood bar Finn McCool’s.
The couple started with a food truck and a recipe for bar-b-que but quickly realized it was not a viable or sustainable business model.
“People always loved the sauce so we decided to start doing little fairs and festivals to sell sandwiches with our sauce and cole slaw and found it to be profitable,” said Lee Mouton, so he and his wife Niki invested in a food truck after the trend began gaining traction in the city.
“We started seeing the trend on TV of mobile food trucks,” he said. “Wanting to get ahead of the curve here in New Orleans we started looking … [and] found one in August and pulled the trigger in September with a loan from family to make the purchase happen. Talk about putting the cart before the horse. We should have looked into it a lot more before spending 14k on a truck.”
The industry proved more competitive than they originally assumed, not to mention it came with a variety of obstacles the couple hadn’t considered beforehand.
“Had we known how hard it would be just to find a spot to park the truck much less the trouble with a commissary or permits with the fire marshal we definitely wouldn’t have bought it,” he said. “For months we worked the truck at night and on weekends but it was really hit or miss. A lot of bars were favorable to us being there and offering something that they didn’t have to their customers that may keep them at their business a little longer but the neighbors weren’t as understanding. Some of the bars were in highly residential areas and the generator on the truck isn’t the quietest thing in the world so the fun was short lived.”
Though, in that time, they built up quite a following: Offering unique items like blue cheese and cilantro cole slaw, fried gouda balls and pulled pork egg rolls kept customers at the door, but it was difficult to keep a steady crowd with the very mobility that seemed like such a great draw at first.
“Being mobile is only as good as the next spot that you can post up and serve people,” Mouton said. “I never got harassed by the city in any way but also never went into the areas that were not supposed to served. I figured why push the issue.”
Mouton thinks the permit restrictions in the city create problems when it comes to mobile food vending, an oft heard complaint. Since permits are increasingly more difficult to come by, especially following the recovery efforts since Hurricane Katrina and the desire to drive business to local restaurants, the food truck scene doesn’t have the same save haven it does in Austin, Texas or even Baton Rouge.
“Competition is always a good thing and only the trucks with good food would survive,” he said. “Even if they did something like Austin or Portland does and had an area specifically for mobile food I think it would be another attraction for tourists that came to the city and yet another way for New Orleanian food truck operators to show what they have to offer.”
Even so, the couple says they are glad to have built up a following with the truck, a following that can now find them at Finn McCool’s and often does.
Nonetheless, the food truck scene continues to grow, a trend that is captured and documented by NOLA Food Trucks, a website that “aims to create an easy to use listing of vendors, maps, a search feature, and categories by cuisine types and specific locations.”
Whether the city warms to this new type of mobile dining is yet to be seen, but until then, it doesn’t appear to be slowing down, obstacles and all.
This story originally published in the April 25, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.